Education from LVA

Allen Caperton

Allen Taylor Caperton (1810–1876). Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Allen Taylor Caperton (1810–1876). Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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Allen Taylor Caperton (21 November 1810–26 July 1876), member of the Convention of 1850–1851, the Convention of 1861, and the Confederate States Senate, was born at Elmwood, the Monroe County residence of his parents, Hugh Caperton, who won election to a single term in the House of Representatives in 1813, and his first wife, Jane Erskine Caperton. Although Monroe County was far from the frontier by the time Caperton was born, his family had close connections to the pioneers. His paternal grandfather, Adam Caperton, took part in Dunmore's War and in 1782 was killed in a battle with Native Americans in the Kentucky District. His maternal grandmother, Margaret Handley Pawley Erskine, was a captive of other Indians at about the same time, and it is possible that Caperton was the one who preserved her story in a memorandum published in 1912 as the Old Record of the Captivity of Margaret Erskine, 1779.

Caperton attended an academy in Huntsville, Alabama, returned to Virginia to attend another in Lewisburg, and in 1828 matriculated at the University of Virginia. After one year he entered Yale University, from which he received an A.B. in 1832. Caperton studied law in Staunton with Briscoe Gerard Baldwin (later a judge of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals) and then returned to Monroe County, where he qualified as an attorney in May 1834. On 19 September 1833 he married Harriet Echols. They had six daughters and one son and lived at Elmwood after his father's death in 1847. By 1850 Caperton owned more than a dozen tracts of land totaling more than 1,000 acres. He held ten slaves in 1850 and forty-three in 1860, along with thirteen more who belonged to his wife.

Elected to the House of Delegates in 1841, Caperton served on the Committee for Courts of Justice and on the minor Committee on the Public Library. From 1843 until 1845 he was a private, stockholding director of the James River and Kanawha Company. Throughout his life a strong advocate of government support for canals, railroads, and other internal improvements, he was a Whig and in 1844 was a candidate for presidential elector for Henry Clay. That same year Caperton won election to a four-year term in the Senate of Virginia from the district comprising the counties of Floyd, Giles, Greenbrier, Mercer, Monroe, Montgomery, and Pulaski. He sat on the Committees of Internal Improvement and of General Laws.

The Convention of 1850–1851
In 1850 Caperton entered a four-candidate field and in August of that year won one of three seats representing Giles, Mercer, Monroe, and Tazewell Counties in a convention called to revise the state constitution. He was a member of the Committee on the Basis and Apportionment of Representation named at the beginning of the deliberations and of the eight-member special committee appointed on 12 May 1851 to prepare the final text of the compromise article on apportionment of the General Assembly. Caperton stood with other representatives from the western counties in advocating representation based on the number of white residents without taking property and slaves into account, but he was absent when the final votes on the compromise were taken in the committee of the whole and on the floor of the convention. He supported taxing slaves according to their market value and not per capita, a calculation he believed had placed a disproportionate tax burden on western farmers. He did not vote on final passage of the constitution on 31 July 1851.

The Convention of 1861
Caperton won election to the House of Delegates in 1857 and 1859 for two consecutive terms. He was a member of the Committee on Finance and the Joint Committee on the Library during his first term, and during his second he served on the Committee of Schools and Colleges and was ranking member of the Committee on Finance. On 4 February 1861 he and his brother-in-law John Echols were elected to represent Monroe County in the state convention called in response to the secession crisis. Caperton was named to the Committee on Privileges and Elections. On 4 April 1861 he voted against secession, but two weeks later, proclaiming that "war is upon us, and we are compelled to make the best of it," he asked for unity between the eastern and western regions of Virginia and on 17 April voted in favor of secession. Although Caperton agreed with other westerners that slaves should be taxed on their market value, a proposition that eastern slaveholders resisted until the spring of 1861, he opposed taking up that issue at that time for fear of widening divisions within the state.

Confederate States Senate
In the autumn of 1861 Caperton was a presidential elector for Jefferson Davis and the following year was provost marshal for the Confederate government in Monroe County. On 17 January 1863 the General Assembly elected Caperton to succeed the recently deceased William Ballard Preston, a Whig from Montgomery County, in the Confederate States Senate. The legislators had argued for two days about whether it was politic to select another westerner or another Whig to serve with Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, an easterner and a Democrat, and if so, who the westerner or Whig should be. Although Caperton received scattered votes from the beginning of the balloting, he did not emerge as a strong candidate until midway through the voting and finally won election on the twentieth ballot. He took his seat nine days later and began serving on the Committees on the Judiciary and on Engrossment and Enrollment, the Special Committee on Hospitals, and a select committee to investigate charges of violence committed by United States forces against Confederate civilians and their property. Caperton lost his seat on the judiciary committee in 1864 but gained seats on the Committees on Foreign Relations and on Indian Affairs and became chair of the Committee on Accounts. In December 1864 he temporarily joined the Committee on Post-Offices and Post-Roads. He remained in Richmond through the adjournment of the second, and final, session of the Second Confederate Congress on 18 March 1865.

After the Civil War, Caperton became a Democrat and continued to practice law in Monroe County, where he worked to bring the undeveloped coal and timber resources of West Virginia to the attention of northern investors. In 1875 the West Virginia legislature elected him to the United States Senate. Caperton took office on 5 March 1875 and was appointed to the Committees on Claims, on Railroads, and on the Revision of the Laws. Consistent with his antebellum support of Henry Clay and with his postwar involvement in the economic development of West Virginia, Caperton continued to argue while in the Senate that the national government had a constructive and constitutional role to play in fostering national economic growth. Allen Taylor Caperton died suddenly, probably of heart disease, in Washington, D.C., on 26 July 1876 and was buried in Green Hill Cemetery, in Union, West Virginia.

Contributed by Connie Park Rice

Revised 2010

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 3:3–4.

Copyright 2006 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.